EI combats attacks on teachers' union rights
The threat from the hard-line Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker to remove teachers’ collective bargaining rights, as well as health and pension benefits, has brought thousands of pro-union activists onto US streets.
Concerted mobilisation by EI affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), whose leaders and activists have initiated a vigorous campaign at both local and national level, has resulted in polls showing the public siding with the unions. One survey showed 53 per cent of the public were against cutting benefits and pay for teachers, while another showed 61 per cent opposed to removing their collective bargaining rights. Even Conservative polls have revealed that a majority in Wisconsin is opposed to Walker's attempt to eliminate collective bargaining rights. In the aftermath of recent Republican electoral victories at both federal and state level, Wisconsin’s Governor might have anticipated an easier ride, as he tries to exploit the country’s economic woes. But these are no ordinary times. While some may question the role of the unions, far fewer believe firing 12,000 workers, as Walker has pledged, is the answer. Walker's case is as predictable as it is weak. Teachers, he claims, enjoy higher pay and better benefits than others in a ‘bloated’ state that must ‘slim down’ if it is to keep running. This is hardly true. Taking age and education into account, US local government workers earn four per cent less than their private sector counterparts. Yes, the shortfall in pensions is real, but if the political will existed, calamity could be avoided with a modest increase in budget allocations. Yes, union members generally enjoy better benefits. That's the whole point of being in a union: to improve your living standards through collective action - and that is precisely why Walker wants to crush them. Walker’s agenda has little to do with redressing a fiscal imbalance and everything to do with exploiting the crisis to deliver a killer blow to organised labour. If fixing the budget deficit were really his priority, Walker would not have waved through $140m in tax breaks for multinationals or refused to take federal funds for development. Like 10 other states, he might even have considered raising taxes progressively. None of these contradictions is particular to Wisconsin. Similar stories could be told as far away as Ecuador and Ireland and as nearby as Indiana or Ohio, where union-bashing bills are being tabled. This helps to explain why messages of solidarity and support have been pouring in to the AFT and NEA from EI’s member unions. What Wisconsin provides is a transparent illustration of the ideological sophistry and political mendacity driving the attacks. Having started this fight in such a brazen manner, Walker has little option but to pursue it to its bitter end. The AFT and NEA education unions understand this, which is why their leaders and activists have taken to the airwaves and to the streets to march on city halls and state capitals. The unions understand that they have to reach out and convince people that this fight is for the defence of their core labour standards and that only by standing together will they win this fight and stop the race to the bottom. This is why the American teachers’ struggle has assumed such international significance, and also why EI has been maintaining daily contact with the AFT and NEA, as it prepares to lodge a complaint with the ILO against the US authorities’ violation of core labour standards, and with the CEART committee of experts with regard to the ILO-UNESCO recommendation on the status of teachers. Faced with an existential threat, the labour movement has broadened its horizons and galvanised a pluralistic national opposition. This is a precondition for success but by no means a guarantee.
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